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Be a Critter Detective

May 15, 2013

Deer can decimate a garden; so can plenty of other of Mother Nature's thugs. Find out which one is doing the damage in your yard.

Credit: University of Conneticut Dept. of Horticulture
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I’m at constant war with the critters that assault my gardens all year long. 

Even in winter, deer will scar fruit tree trunks, scratching their itchy antlers against them, and wild turkeys rut the soil seeking insects. 

It doesn’t help that I live in the country where deer, fox, coyotes, raccoons, squirrels and rabbits thrive.  I live in a bad neighborhood!

Last year during the drought, things nearly went nuclear.  Some gangsters took to gnawing holes in the garden hoses, seeking water.  After replacing two hoses, my husband strung one of them in the crabapple tree near the vegetable garden to get if off the ground.  Didn’t work. 

Holes started appearing in the hose up in the tree.  Husband taped the hose to seal it, and I sprayed it with a critter repellent.  That worked.  But, I never could figure out who was doing the damage. That’s until Joan Casanova of Green Earth Media Group sent me her critter detective guide.

Bunnies may look cuddly and innocent, but they do major damage to vegetable and flower beds.  Photo courtesy of Green Earth Media Group

Here are Joan’s clues on how to determine and deter which unwanted animal is the assailant in your garden.  She said, “How are you supposed to fight ‘crime’ in your decimated garden if you can’t identify the suspect who’s been devouring your daylilies?”

Deer - Ragged bites, typically a foot or more above the ground indicate deer damage. Deer are notorious for devouring flowers and ornamental plants.  Tall, electrified fences work, but they are expensive and make a garden look like a prison yard.

Rabbits - If plant damage is low to the ground, a few inches above the soil, and includes stems clipped cleanly at an angle, the culprits are rabbits. These foragers will eat just about any kind of vegetation, including vegetables, flowers, bushes and other woody plants. If you don't want bunnies nesting and raising families near your garden, remove debris that could provide them with shelter.  Also, wire mesh fencing around vegetable gardens deters them, too.

Rabbit fencing around my veggie garden keeps the damage away, but I can't fence flower beds.

Voles - When flower bulbs disappear from the ground or plant roots go missing, chances are you have voles - mouse-like creatures that burrow underground. Exit holes are further indications that voles are tunneling under your garden. Teeth marks around the base of trees, droppings or trails in the grass can also indicate the presence of voles.

Groundhogs - Mounds of dirt beside burrow entrances are a sure sign of groundhogs, a garden villain that eats just about every type of green plant. They live in burrows underground.

Chipmunks - Damage to flower bulbs, plant shoots and leaves, uprooted plants and dug-up roots are all signs you have chipmunks. Their underground burrows may be a challenge to spot since the entrances are usually only about 2 inches in diameter and not surrounded by noticeable dirt mounds. You can foil their activity by removing yard debris where chipmunks hide.

Squirrels - While you might think of them as mostly the enemy of anyone with a bird feeder, squirrels also damage gardens. They live in colonies, digging underground tunnels and mounds in grassy areas and around trees that can lay waste to gardens and landscapes.

Why Use Repellents?

Once you've identified the guilty parties, you'll need the right weapons to fight back.

The first line of defense might be traditional pest-control measures including netting, predator urine, or even human hair strewn around the yard. Fences do the job, but they're expensive and you may live in a community that restricts the type and height of fences you can erect.  If you have a bad case of critters and these measures do not work, consider stronger spray repellents and other tactics.

The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station tested a number of repellents and found that Bobbex-R worked 100% at repelling rabbits.  It worked well as a bulb dip, too, to deter voles, chipmunks and squirrels.  You can also spray it at the mouth of burrows to drive critters away.  The spray works through smell and taste aversion; it’s made from organic ingredients, too.

Deer a major felons when it comes to critter damage.  They can destroy flower beds in an instant, it seems!  Photo courtesy of Green Earth Media Group.

Deer repellents were also tested, and Bobbex Deer, an all-natural repellent made from rotten eggs, garlic, fish, clove oil and vinegar, worked 93% of the time. Nine other commercial repellents (including coyote urine) were tested by the AG Station. Bobbex was second only to a fence at 100 percent, in preventing deer damage.

Another product that readers brought to our attention is the Predator Preventor.  It's a 24-hour defense system of light and found that keeps wild animals (deer, raccoons, coyotes, and more) away from not just your garden.

It also protects pets, livestock, your garbage cans and property, and people. The Predator Preventor is now stocked in the Almanac General Store.  Our readers have reported good feedback.

If you have any effective tips or tools we welcome your posts.  We're always on the lookout for new ways to live with our critters—but also reap more of what we sow!

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Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.

In stores now!

Look for Doreen's newest book, Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs for Today's Cook. Find in stores everywhere including Walmart and on the Web including

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What works for me is to have

By Animal lover

What works for me is to have a feeding station a little away from my garden. I have a short open bin there into which I toss surplus fruit and vegetables or those damaged by weather, disease or insects. Next to that I have a large tin bowl half buried in the ground which I fill with water. I protect my garden with a wire fence and motion lights. Animals go to the feeding station for the easy pickings and leave my garden alone. I also put out feed there before my garden starts producing. I think only hungry animals bother to raid protected gardens. So give them something to eat and drink and they'll leave your gardens, trees, shrubs and hoses alone. I dump whatever is in the bin about once a week, or whenever I have extra produce to add to it, into my compost bin which is then added back to my garden in the late fall. I get to watch lots of critters while I'm enjoying a meal of fresh garden produce on my deck.

Something is eating holes in

By Gardener4ever

Something is eating holes in ALL the ripe tomatoes in the garden before we can get them. Could this be mice, chipmunks, moles? If yes, what can we do to discourage them from destroying the tomatoes?

The same thing is happening

By Doreen G. Howard

The same thing is happening to my tomatoes.  I suspect crows, because the tomatoes are high off the ground.  Try spraying tomatoes with whipped egg whites and vinegar as repellent.  Be sure to wash tomatoes thoroughly after picking.


When the hose was on the

By Doreen G. Howard

When the hose was on the ground, it was probably raccoons, which infest the area. The damage when the hose was put up in the tree was different and looked exactly like deer damage. That's why the deer repellent worked perfectly.

So what chewed the holes in

By curious

So what chewed the holes in the garden hose?

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